The media world takes notice when newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal launch new, successful digital initiatives. What we dont hear enough about are the advances being made by regional media companies, which are just as significant and have great impact on the future of news consumption.

A case in point is GFR Media and its CEO Graciela Eleta, whose background includes a stint with Procter & Gamble, offering a fresh view and global perspective to regional media. Her views and pro-active initiatives deserve more attention, and they serve as an antidote to those who look at regional groups and see only decline.

GFR is the largest media group in Puerto Rico, and it probably has more in common with most American media companies — and regional media groups around the world — than the big players in New York and Washington.

In an interview with the Institute for Media Strategies, Eleta spoke about the value of creating “communities of interest,” changing sales strategies to avoid competing solely on price and with local competitors, and the challenges of changing an entrenched newspaper culture. This interview originally appeared on the Institute for Media Strategies (IFMS) Web site.

Graciela Eleta has a number of initiatives in mind for GFR Media.
Graciela Eleta has a number of initiatives in mind for GFR Media.

When we think about the new business models for news media, local and regional newspapers are not usually the first thing to come to mind. But Graciela Eleta is clearly one whose thinking it likely to reshape the future.

As CEO of GFR Media, the largest local media company in Puerto Rico, she is thinking well beyond the borders of her company’s home market.

“My competitors are anyone out there who can steal share, time, and engagement from my audience,” she said. “That can be Google, Facebook, The New York Times, or any other publisher.”

Eleta joined GFR just one year ago, having spent a large part of her career with Proctor & Gamble — hence the global perspective. The world of fast-moving consumer goods is quite different from news media, but provides advantages that are well worth exploring.

“We’ve got to move away from a commoditised business model where we compete against Google and Facebook only on price,” she said. “We’ve got to leverage the power of our brands, reach, and local engagement so that we can have a chance of competing against these formidable global competitors.”

She also has strong views on the power of independent journalism.

“We need to make sure our audiences value credible, in-depth journalistic reporting and content. How do we move to a world where consumers value it, pay for it, understand it, consume it, and engage with it so that once more we become indispensable in their lives? We need to figure out a model where the degree of relevancy, intimacy, and connectivity we have with our audience goes back to what it was when you sat to read the paper every morning over a cup of coffee.”

Moving away from competing on circulation and pricing versus local competitors is just one of the perspectives that Eleta brings to GFR, publishers of El Nuevo Dia, Primera Hora, and Indice Brands. In an interview with the Institute for Media Strategies, Eleta dove into the new strategy, providing a look at how GFR provides content across platforms for different audience segments, while providing integrated solutions for advertisers across its vast portfolio of products and services.

IFMS: Some say newspapers and their digital platforms are the ultimate fast-moving consumer goods — a completely new product delivered every day, often even faster. Does coming from the consumer goods industry provide you with an advantage? Are there also any challenges or disadvantages of coming from one industry to another?

Eleta: When I came into GFR Media, I joined a legacy organisation that was very local and obsessively operational. There wasn’t the inherent need for change and innovation that you find in large C.P.G. companies, where you tend to have global multinational competitors on your heels. The pace of change, evolution, and innovation was much slower than I was used to in corporate.

I found functional silos unused to collaborating to achieve common goals. The fact that GFR Media has had the luxury of succeeding without having to collaborate and communicate at those very high levels was surprising. So, a lot of what I’ve been doing over the last year is building a corporate culture that promotes cross-functional alignment behind common strategic priorities.

Secondly, I focused on the product, how can we improve it, what are its strengths, what are its weaknesses. This included conducting in-depth quantitative research to understand what were the perceptions of our newspaper versus competitive products, and how could we differentiate the brands in our portfolio. This has led to a repositioning of our top two brands to delight our core audiences.

Additionally, I re-focused the organisation away from competing only versus local players. Given our legacy as a printed newspaper, GFR Media did not feel the need to be externally focused, because in print, your competitors are traditionally your local competitors. But in reality, your competitors are anyone out there who steals time, attention, and engagement from your audience. That can be Google and Facebook and Twitter or The New York Times or any other publisher.

IFMS: As you’ve said, you came in with a very strong change plan for the commercial area. Can you define this a bit more? What were your focus areas and principles behind the change?

Eleta: When we went out to benchmark best practices, it became very apparent that we were going to market with very “siloed” product lines. We were selling products, as opposed to solutions. We were not consultative. We were very much at the end of our clients’ annual planning process, at the “11th-hour execution,” as opposed to becoming part of a client or agency strategy up front.

We were talking to the media buyer at the media agency, not even to the creative agency, and not always to the client. We were also very transactional, and, by that, I mean very focused on negotiating price or discounts or volume as opposed to a more strategic approach that started with client need and objectives.

So, we looked at all of this and, we said, OK, we’ve got to be able to move earlier in the strategic planning process with clients and agencies. We have to understand the categories, the clients and the brands and the consumers those brands serve much better than we do now — and in some cases better than the clients themselves.

We’ve got to move away from a commoditised business model where we compete against Google and Facebook only on price. We’ve got to leverage the power of our brands, reach, and local engagement so that we can have a chance of competing against these formidable global competitors.

IFMS: You talk about your audience and the reach, and many media companies have been fairly successful in extending their reach across digital platforms. The challenge, of course, is how to monetise the new models. Could you explain the elements of this new strategy? What are the ones you believe will be successful revenue generators?

Eleta: We are in the implementation stages, so I don’t have a dozen case studies that I can show you. I can tell you, though, that this year was fortunately a very successful year for us. Partly because of the restructuring efforts of the year before, but we also were able to grow many pockets of revenue behind offering integrated solutions to our clients that went beyond just print and digital.

Together they still don’t make up for the loss in print, which is why for next year we are doing even more things. But I will tell you the pockets of revenue we are seeing behind this strategy, and the focus, has been on selling integrated packages, solutions, and selling a lot of diversified media pathways. More social media, more mobile, more video, more on-premise activation, more small business solutions, more native content — all of them customised to meet clients’ needs.

None of them had been, in the past, resourced appropriately, and beyond resourced appropriately, I don’t think we were all playing in the sandbox together multi-functionally. So, this year, we’re looking at having all relevant offerings participating in these joint presentations, where we formulate these integrated plans.

IFMS: One of the pillars of your strategy is what you refer to as communities of interest, or specific audience groups from whom you can generate value. Who are these groups, and how did you determine they were the groups you wanted to reach?

Eleta: When I started thinking of integrated solutions, it all started as part of sales. Much later on, I realised that we needed to go way beyond just thinking about integrated sales or product solutions to thinking about communities of interest and how can we leverage our basic proposition, which is our content.

So, communities of interest were born. Why am I calling it a community of interest as opposed to an audience segment? One, because it’s not just about media. And two, because it’s not a demographic. It could be basket weavers, or it could be diabetics, or it could be foodies, any of this, but it is not necessarily a demographic or a media target — it isn’t 18 to 49.

Let’s imagine that I’m picking new moms. Let’s understand using our online panel, our audience data — what they need and what are their pain points, e.g. what is the job to be done? We’re going to be doing a lot of research to understand what those pain points are. And once we understand those pain points and what they’re not getting today, we’re going to say, OK, what is it that we can uniquely provide?

Or let’s imagine a community of pet lovers. How do we utilise our content, products, and services to attract and delight pet lovers? Now we’re even considering getting into e-couponing, e-targeting, app development, experiences, services, strategic partnerships with people who want to sell something to a community of interest.

And all this is powered by GFR Media. When I say powered by GFR Media, what I’m referring to is the power of contextually relevant media. And when you combine that with the power of our massive reach plus the power of converting eyeballs to purchases, this gives us what we’re calling “brandformance.”

So, there’s just so much potential in this, but, to be honest, we’re close to stage zero right now, but quickly building our plans.

IFMS: You’ve mentioned the concept you refer to as “brandformance.” Can you explain this?

Eleta: We already have native advertising, our Brand Share Studio, and what we’re trying to do is taking it from where it is, our native content and product capabilities, and really just put it on steroids. Because we feel we need to do it in a more integrated fashion across pathways (print plus video, plus social, plus mobile). We need to make sure we position ourselves in the marketplace much better so that agencies see it as a synergistic added value resource and not in competition with either clients or agencies.

We also want to make sure that we go beyond just driving brand awareness, all the way to using storytelling and using our content to be able drive consumer engagement that drives brand conversion. Brandformance is about driving your brand equity and awareness, but it has to be able to give you conversion at the end.

Finally, we want to use our audience intelligence, segmentation, and intel to do targeting of our media plans to the right community or audiences. We want to target them and retarget them and then optimise those campaigns to improve on that conversion funnel. What we’re adding is a lot of elements. Think of it today on 1.0 and we want to take it on steroids to 2.0 and 3.0.

IFMS: A final question: What keeps you up at night?

Eleta: What keeps me up at night is the fact that 60% of every digital dollar is going to Google and Facebook and that, as an industry, we have given away publishing content for free in many cases.

We are at an intersection, as an industry, where we need to make sure our audiences value credible, in-depth journalistic reporting and content. How do we move to a world where consumers value it, pay for it, understand it, consume it, and engage with it so that once more we become indispensable in their lives? We need to figure out a model where the degree of relevancy, intimacy, and connectivity we have with our audience goes back to what it was when you sat to read the paper every morning over a cup of coffee.

I know it might be an illusory dream, but we’ve got to be able to engage with our target consumer, and do it better and deeper than what they’re getting from Google and Facebook. Otherwise, there will be no local journalism in the future. And it’s pretty worrisome — not only for me as a person, but for us as a society.